Pastor Timothy Keller has written that idolatry—loving something or something more than we love God—is the “sin beneath the sin.” Anytime I sin, Keller says, I am allowing some competing desire to have a higher priority than God and God’s will for my life (SOUL KEEPING, John Ortberg, p. 82).
If idolatry is the root cause of every sin, then it is little wonder that the first of the 10 commandments given in Exodus 20 concerns rooting out idolatry from our hearts.
In my 40 years as a pastor, I have performed numerous wedding ceremonies. Part of the promise I ask the husband and wife to make before the congregation and God Himself is that they will love and cherish one another and, “forsaking all others,” be faithful to one another. What I am asking them to do is to “esteem” one another.
You might be thinking, what does this have to do with the first commandment? Well, in a word: everything. Whatever else the first commandment might mean, at its core, is the love relationship between God and His people and their requirement to esteem God alone. Exodus 20:3 says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
1. Understanding What “Esteem” Means
Before we can obey the first commandment—to have no other gods before God—we need to understand what it means to esteem someone. Merriam-Webster defines esteem as “setting a high value on, to regard and prize accordingly.” In other words, to esteem, someone is to assign great worth or value to that person.
The Old Testament uses two Hebrew words for “esteem.” The primary word is arak, meaning “to arrange things and put them in order.” When applied to a person, the idea is to give priority to someone by placing them first in a series.
2. Why We Should Esteem God Alone (Exodus 20:1-3)
Remember, God’s laws were given not for His benefit but for our benefit. There’s a reason God says to esteem only Him. In verse 2, God gives us four fundamental reasons we are to esteem Him alone—two deal with who God IS, and two are based on what God has DONE for us.
- God Is Our Creator
The idea of God as Creator is found in the word “LORD” (Exodus 20:2). This is the English translation of the Hebrew word Yahweh, which can be rendered “I AM WHO I AM” (3:14). The idea is that God is self-existent, eternal, and sovereign. He is the uncreated Creator of everything seen and unseen—from the billions of stars in the sky to the billions of starfish in the sea. John said, “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (John 1:3). He is not only the creator of the universe, He is OUR creator.
- God Is Our Covenant Maker
The idea of God as a Covenant Maker comes from the phrase “your God” (Exodus 20:2). God indeed is the Creator of the universe, but He isn’t an impersonal superpower, force, or deity. He’s a person who longs to have a personal and unique relationship with His people.
- God Is Our Redeemer
God is not only the Creator and Covenant Maker but also the Redeemer. We see this in the phrase, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2).
- God Is Our Rewarder
God is also our Rewarder. We see this in His promise that instead of captivity, the Israelites would have a long life “in the land which the LORD your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12). As Paul explains in Romans 6-8, once we are redeemed, we are no longer slaves to sin and to the Master of Sin—Satan himself. Instead, we are slaves to God, a benevolent master who frees us to experience the rewards of following God in this life and the next one.
3. The Ingredients Of Esteeming God Alone (Exodus 20:3)
The first commandment is not only the first command in order and priority but also the fundamental motivation to obey all the other commandments. This most basic commandment establishes the proper posture we should have before God that makes us able to obey the other nine.
Let’s look at two components of the first commandment, so we can develop a greater appreciation of what this command says about God and why we should esteem Him alone.
- “Shall Have”
Wedding vows often include “to have and to hold from this day forward.” Have you ever really thought about what it means “to have” someone?
To have the means to own or possess something or someone, you have an exclusive claim others cannot make. For example, I have a car that others have no right to drive without permission. I have a home that others have no right to enter without an invitation. When it comes to my marriage, I have Amy in a unique relationship that excludes all others from making a claim on her marital love and affection. The same is true for Amy. She has me as her own special relationship.
In the same way, “to have” God is to place Him in an exclusive position in your life—to live for Him in faithful obedience and loyalty, expressed in worship, service, and reverence, which the Bible says is the essence of wisdom.
- “No Other Gods Before Me”
During their 430 years in Egypt, the Israelites learned to esteem other gods. The Lord showed His power over all pretenders through the ten plagues. The Egyptians believed the Nile was the bloodstream of Osiris, the god of life and death. But in the hands of the Lord, Osiris bled out when God turned the Nile into the blood.
The Israelites were leaving behind the gods of the Egyptians. But what lay ahead were other gods, just as weak-kneed as the Egyptian gods but perhaps more beguiling—and for these reasons.
Two Reasons Israelites Were Attracted To False Canaanite Gods
- Israel’s Prolonged Habit
Habits can either work for you or against you. For Israel, their habit for 430 years of esteeming other gods made them prime targets for idolatry as they entered a land dominated by polytheism.
- The False Gods’ Powerful Appeal
The gods of the Canaanites, who occupied the promised land, were more appealing than the gods of blood, light, and frogs of Egypt. The worship of the Canaanite god’s involved activities such as gluttony, drunkenness, and sex with temple prostitutes.
4. Three Questions To Ask Yourself
- What Do You Think About Most of the Time?
- Whom Are You Trying to Impress?
- What Are You Living For?
The Christian mystic Madame Guyon wrote, “There are only two principles of life: the first which places ourselves at the center of our universe, and the other which places God at the center.”
If God is really central in your life, your thoughts will automatically turn toward him, your desire will be to please Him, and your ultimate goal in life will be to determine His will and to do it.
Full Passage: Exodus 20:3